The single most important thing higher ed websites can do is change the fundamental organizing principle away from the org chart (content organized via department) and toward people. This means organizing content via degree programs which represents the fundamental connection point between student and school.
User tests show that students have consistent informational needs when deciding which university to attend:
- Do you have a program of study that interests me?
- Can I afford that program?
- Does the school’s culture/vibe feel right (will I fit in)?
- Grad level students’s needs will lean more towards faculty, their interests and research opportunities away from cultural fit on a social level (grads don’t usually live on campus so the social component isn’t as important)
This basic set of questions all revolve around degree programs, not the broader departments within which they exist. Because of this level of specificity, departments should take a secondary role in how a higher ed site is structured. Degree programs should instead be the central organizing framework.
I see too many university sites where I can find a program of study through the top level pages only to be taken to a departmental site’s homepage where I have to find the same degree information I thought I was originally linking to all over again.
With a shift in how higher ed sites are organized, other pieces begin to fall into place: building communities around logical points of interest, presenting appropriate content (research, faculty, pricing, culture, etc.) within context and, importantly, filtering out a lot of stuff that’s not relevant because it has nothing to do with a student’s preferred degree program.